One can survive everything nowadays except death. — Oscar Wilde
Life is like an amusement park.
Some rides vigorously spin you round and round, until you lose all sense of certainty, except that you will throw up. Some are scenic and quiet, others grotesque and shrill. Some move at such velocity, your body contorts in dread, fearing you will fly off the track. Still others are slow, steady, and agonizingly predictable. A few are a thrill while they last; others are not worth repeating.
You go expecting to have fun, but you are wise to wear comfortable shoes.
The hero’s journey is the story of life, where the material and transcendental worlds cosmically collide in a battle for survival, stirring up massive amounts of dirt and debris, inciting terror and exhilaration in their wake. When the dust finally settles, there is a single victor who takes all and never loses. Take a wild guess which one.
Had someone told me what life would be like, I might have stayed home. But I did not get to choose. No one does. Still, it is a profoundly amazing and colorful ride—and as experiences go, it beats the alternative.
Psychiatrist, Carl Jung, suggested that archetypes appearing in myths, legends, or dreams were Universal aspects of the human mind, which he called the collective unconscious. These cognitive structures evolved as archetypes, such as Mother, Father, Persona, Shadow, Anima, Animus, or Trickster, and as inherent knowledge or experiences common to all, such as birth, death, and rebirth (transformation).
Joseph Campbell, a writer, and speaker is best known for his work in comparative religion and mythology. He surmised that, regardless of cultural differences or vast separations of time or space, all myths share fundamental similarities in symbolism, theme, and structure. He called this universality a monomyth (the hero’s journey). This monomyth demonstrates the same tenets of life, told in stories over and again in an infinite number of permutations or characters, invariably following similar patterns or stages of development.
Although from diverse backgrounds, Jung and Campbell arrived at a complementary assessment of the inner and outer human experience correlated in these myths; as timeless as they are Universal, each containing integral elements, with the same trajectory for everyone.
The path is different, but the journey is the same:
- A hero or protagonist (in this book, you, in your own life story).
- An antagonist (also possibly you, or others in your life story).
- A cyclical beginning, middle, and end (separation, initiation, and return).
- Archetypal roles or characters expressed as light (usually beneficial) or shadow (usually destructive).
- Corresponding opposites or polarities: conquest and defeat, love and apathy, strengths and weaknesses, and allies and enemies.
- Highs: Joy and happiness. Love. Camaraderie. Accomplishment. Endurance. Courage. Peace.
- Lows: Trials and tribulations. Losses. Betrayal. Being tested to the limit. Untried situations. Anxiety. Heartbreak. Setbacks.
- Transcending a monumental force of opposition.
- Giving back to society—sharing one’s experience or gain to benefit others and make the world a better place for all.
Catalyst events initiating a hero’s journey (Call to Adventure). Think Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when the cyclone hits. Neo, in The Matrix, when Morpheus warns him of agents coming after him. And for you, a job termination, move, beginning or ending of a relationship, or other disruption to your status quo.
The necessity for transformation and personal development. Without adversity, there is no growth. Without growth, there is no story. Progress includes transmuting a belief or behavior that no longer serves you.
No one is alone or without help. There are always friends, allies, or guides, and assistance from people or forms one would least expect, such as an enemy, animal, object, or the supernatural or paranormal.
Renouncing one’s ego. Not “I or me” but “we,” which is the ultimate reward to achieve and difficult to obtain. It requires knowledge impossible to learn from others or wisdom embodied only through personal experience. Pretenses in thought or action will not suffice.
Most movies, television shows, books (including some nonfiction), religious stories, Greek mythology, and fairy tales follow the same basic premise and outline of the hero’s journey. What makes these stories so compelling is our emotional connection with the characters and their ordeals or ecstasies, no matter the period or genre.
Atypical to many Hollywood productions, the hero is not routinely a “good” character, as evidenced by the Showtime production of Dexter. The genial, often humorous, blood spatter analyst for the fictional Miami Metro Police Department, leads a secret life as a blood-thirsty serial killer. Despite the irony of this and his twisted sense of morality regarding “righteous” murder, his sense of humor, along with the love he feels for his sister and son, humanizes him, making him more “normal” and relatable. Similarly, the Corleone’s in The Godfather, made sympathetic by their honorable sense of family and loyalty—contrasted by their dishonorable acts of murder as justifications for same.
Another flawed hero is Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie in the television series House, M.D. The impregnable and brilliant doctor spends each episode saving lives deemed beyond hope, who, in juxtaposition, could not give two shits about those lives, or anyone else’s for that matter. Yet, hidden beneath his irascible front is a genuinely vulnerable man in deep inner pain, who does care, and the one person he cannot save is himself.
Viewed in this light, characterizations of “good” and “bad” become indistinguishable. They are neither or they are both. While we give great latitude to fictional characters, we pigeonhole real people as one or the other, wanting to keep them distinct and separate. But one-dimensionality is boring. Often, it is the complex and married layers of both that give interest and depth to one’s character. Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect, although extreme example, showcasing the duality of one’s true nature (light and shadow).
Books or movies follow the framework of the hero’s journey because they are gripping stories about the lives of human beings. The story of your life and our collective lives is no different and just as compelling. Why? Because we are all connected, and therefore, your unique journey adds to my experience and everyone else’s.
Had Maya Angelou died at the age of twenty, she would have died a sex worker and a single mom. At that point in her life, we would have likely judged her as disgraceful, or her character as deeply flawed. However, it was only the beginning of her hero story. Her initiation into experiencing herself beyond these labels, and her return from perdition—transformed and empowered, enabled her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Our individual experiences, transmuting some aspect of evil to morality, apathy to love, or ignorance to wisdom, when shared, become the fabric of our collective lives.
Perhaps you are thinking, to be a hero, you must be the next Maya Angelou or Steve Jobs, or to find a cure for cancer, or be blessed with numerous friends, or have spectacular adventures to effect meaning to your life or improve the lives of others. Not so.
The character Chuck Noland in Cast Away, an ordinary FedEx employee played by Tom Hanks, undergoes a hero’s journey, and he does so on a deserted island without another soul in sight—unless you count the volleyball, Wilson. Four years of utter desolation tested every fiber of his being. During this ordeal, as if by a supernatural occurrence, he receives life-sustaining aid in the form of various FedEx boxes that wash ashore. One of those boxes (with angel wings) leads him to, as we gather at the conclusion of this journey, the love of his life.
Or consider these real-life illustrations: the chronically cynical hairdresser who discovers she has cancer and people she does not know, help her through the process, renewing her faith in the goodness of human beings. The once homeless person, living invisibly on the streets, who opens a food bank and shelter to combat the loneliness and lack of care for other homeless people. The person working 60 hours a week to avoid going home to an empty house, who adopts two shelter animals, finds unconditional love, and stops killing himself for a company who barely knows he exists.
These examples reflect the various journeys each hero experiences—and there may be several in a lifetime, some more arduous than others. One is neither greater nor lesser. Each journey you embark on, which includes the interpersonal relationships you currently have or form along the way, has its own special purpose for you, and a boon to offer others at the conclusion. The necessity is in being present with what is before you and endeavoring your best to transform and grow throughout the process. You become the hero in undertaking the journey itself, by doing or experiencing it.
Every life touches other lives, including animals and plants, and so on, like an expanding ripple of water. We cannot know the magnitude of how just one life impacts or transforms another, much less the multitudes that exponentially follow as a result. Even an inanimate volleyball had a profound effect on Chuck, regardless it was imbued with life by his own imagination. He felt strengthened by Wilson, and therefore, not feeling alone, Chuck was enabled to take on the ocean and find his way back home.
At the beginning of his masterful book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the dangerous tyrant Holdfast as an archetypal hoarder of general benefit (for all). Holdfast represents the inflated ego and greed of: “It is all about me, my, and mine,” who chases wealth and crushes opponents to come out on top. Despite incredible riches or prosperity, Holdfast lives in abject terror, expecting aggressors who will grab and take what is his, which mirrors his own insatiable ego and greed to possess. It becomes a self-created fear of an uncivil society, when it is he who is being uncivil and shaping that society. One who cleaves tightly or thinks only of self is incapable of giving (or receiving) love, producing a hellish circle of fire; trapped by one’s own trappings.
There is sound reason Campbell describes Holdfast at the beginning of his book, because the hoarder of general benefit is the supreme villain, representing the vilest aspect in us too. At our most pernicious, we see ourselves as separate from others, where the exalted rule is every person for their own—whether self or family. This is the ultimate hubris, for no person is an island; therefore, nothing gained is without the help of many unknown others.
Being our own worst enemy, such as Holdfast, we are the antagonist in our personal story and the protagonist hero. Both sides of a personality contained within the one person (duality), neither side fully knowing the other, but on the road to discovery. With one or more aspects of one’s life needing a metamorphosis—a journey begins. This includes all of our interactions with others, especially those of an intimate variety, because they tend to carry the most opportunity for growth in our lives.
In this sense, journeys represent our eventual conquering of the villain Holdfast within ourselves; the ego who thinks only of self, or relentlessly hoards, to become the victorious hero who realizes our connectedness to all, and in our sharing or serving others, we are helping ourselves. Despite the illusion of outward appearances, there is no separation between you and anyone else or you from the whole of the Universe.
While some pooh-pooh the idea that the ancients had any wisdom at all, given they did not possess our current technology or modern scientific advancements, we might do well to revise that mode of thinking. Many ancient civilizations were not easily fooled by the illusion of appearances. The concept of the unity of all life, the lack of separation, and our connection to all things and all beings in the Universe was not only known by them, and thus recounted in their myths, other writings, and symbolism throughout time—their knowledge was also passed down to others or through mystery schools and academies. It is more accurate to state that, scientifically, we are just beginning to catch up to their level of sentient intelligence.
The hero’s journey is one of self-discovery; to unmask and make whole the light and shadow within, reveal your purpose, transform beliefs or behaviors not serving your life or the collective, and expose your connection to each person and all things. Once you know and love yourself, knowing and loving others is a natural progression, leading to happy and fulfilling relationships.
You will take a succession of journeys, each having its own purpose guiding you toward this same conclusion. Every respective phase requires your full experience before the next stage can begin. And by that; I mean, being present with what is before you, and consciously integrating each phase into your life. It is a process, and there are no shortcuts. Not unlike me, when first trying to write this book. My insistence on doing it my way, going in the direction I wanted to go, was like trying to run a sprint while wearing lead boots—I was stuck and unable to move forward. Following the path set out for me, one step at a time, and fully experiencing each aspect, allowed me to remove those lead-filled boots, giving me my voice and freedom.
With any superb movie or life story, we may find ourselves so thoroughly engaged, we cannot wait to experience the final catharsis. Hitting the “fast forward” button in order to “cut to the chase” is tantalizing. However, it is the entire journey itself that holds all the promise of that eventual catharsis.
In other words, do your best to be a turtle, not a hare—and enjoy the ride.
Prologue: The Hero’s Journey from my unpublished book, Magnetic Attraction, by S. Harper King
Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Vol. 9, Part 1, Bollingen Foundation, Inc., Princeton University Press, 1959, NJ.
Joseph Campbell Foundation. “About Joseph Campbell.” Joseph Campbell Foundation, jcf.org/about-joseph-campbell.
Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. George M. Hill Company, 1900, IL.
The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (The Wachowski Brothers), written by Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (The Wachowski Brothers), Warner Brothers, 1999.
Manos Jr., James, creator. Dexter. Showtime Networks, 2006.
The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Paramount Pictures, 1972.
Shore, David, creator. House. Fox, 2004.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Longmans, Green & Co., 1886, London.
Davidson, Lauren. “What Maya Angelou’s past can teach the feminists of the future.” Mic, May 29, 2014, mic.com/articles/90083/what-maya-angelou-s-past-can-teach-the-feminists-of-the-future.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969, NY.
Cast Away. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by William Broyles, Jr., Twentieth Century Fox and DreamWorks Pictures, 2000.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Foundation, Inc., Princeton University Press, 1949, NJ, pp. 15-16.